Downtown Sonora

Who needs the internet?

As most of you know, I’m writing this from a small, rural community in the foothills of the Sierras. Next year, three of our five county supervisors are up for reelection and the debate about how to address the county’s many issues is well underway. One issue that comes up in all of the candidate’s remarks is the lack of widespread broadband service throughout the county. (Broadband is defined by the FCC as connection speeds of at least 25 mb/s download and 3 mb/s upload.) This problem is not uncommon in rural areas. The low population density doesn’t provide enough customers for service providers to realize quick profits on the large investment needed to reach unserved areas.

It is self evident to me that whatever county government can do to facilitate broadband expansion will have a huge positive impact on both economic development and quality of life in the county. But apparently, others disagree. Posting in Facebook, a local resident writes:

No one “needs” broadband. No one “needs” internet. What we “need” is our roads repaired and a district supervisor who will assist south county with issues critical to south county. For example: getting roads fixed. Parking for shoppers to make Groveled economically strong. Developing programs for young people to be successful in life. Finding ways for young people to get an education or trade that will keep them in Groveland, or the area if you will, that will strengthen our community for years to come.

All of these things are important, of course, and any credible candidate will need to address them. But broadband internet has become a necessary public service, right along with electricity and garbage pickup, and I can’t imagine a prosperous county without it.

It’s undoubtedly true that attracting and retaining young people will strengthen our community. Many of those who are born and raised here will choose to spend “time abroad” when they are ready to leave home. They will see and experience life outside of Tuolumne County, which is surely a good thing. Some will want to return at some point. This choice is more difficult if it means giving up the connectivity they have enjoyed during their time away. If broadband is required for their work, they will currently be limited to just a few areas to which they can relocate.

Other young people from out of the area are looking to make a change to a more rural lifestyle, especially when they are ready to raise a family. Many of these people will want to bring their work with them, either by working remotely for an employer or being self employed, doing work that is portable to any location. Either of these options requires fast, reliable internet service.

I have not heard any candidate say that if we bring widely distributed broadband to the county, all of our problems will be solved. However, I believe it is a necessity if we hope to create an environment in which our communities can grow and prosper.

Stepping down off my soapbox now.

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